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SPOTLIGHT on… William McVicker – organ curator, professor of organology, organ consultant

Updated: Jul 31, 2023


We are delighted that you are a Patron of SWO. Why did you become a member of SWO and what do you value about it?

A few years ago I heard someone say (of a female organist) ‘she’s got no idea how that piece should be played’. This triggered in my mind the question ‘are there accepted ways of playing pieces which are gender-related?’. When I looked at some piano repertoire I realised that there are quite different ways of interpreting music. There are definitely works in other repertoires which are given significantly different (and accepted) interpretations – I wondered whether the comment relating to organ performance was really informed by prejudice rather than by musical observation. When I saw that plans were afoot to form SWO I thought I’d support it. I have three daughters and have seen how they strive to find their place in the world. I think we will be impressed by what the empowerment of women organists can produce, both in musical and social terms.


Who, or what, inspired you to take up the organ? What was your training as an organist?

As a chorister I watched my choirmaster perform at the organ. He was a very good player and I now realise he had a wide repertoire. We had many weddings on Saturdays in the 1970s and he would perform an entertaining programme before each one. I gradually became interested in how he registered the music. I sometimes suggested registrations for some anthems (aged 12) — and (amazingly) he would oblige.


A new parish Rector came to my church in the mid 1970s. He was a musician and asked if I wanted organ lessons — which he gave me for free, for around eight years! His name was Canon Robert Warner; he was a distinguished intellectual as well as a musician. He had been an assistant organist in his youth at a cathedral in Ireland. His advice really shaped my experience of the organ in ways he could not have imagined. When he first sent me down into the body of the church during an organ lesson in order to listen to my registrations, I had no idea what he wanted me to listen to. I came to understand what he was teaching me; some organists never listen carefully to the sounds they make! Others can be wedded to a tonal concept they somehow have in their head, without letting the organ they are performing on speak for itself. Robert’s early advice has really helped me in my work as an organ consultant, which now occupies most of my time.


My route to the organ was conventional. I was a choirboy, sang in Manchester Cathedral choir as a deputy lay clerk (between school and university), and became an organ scholar at St Hild & St Bede College, University of Durham. I studied the instrument with David Hill, Ian Shaw, with Dame Gillian Weir in a masterclass, and later with Daniel Roth in Paris. I was appointed post-graduate Caedmon Fellow in Music at Durham whilst studying for my PhD.


You are Organ Curator at the Royal Festival Hall in London. What does this involve?

My role is to look after the interests of the pipe organs at Southbank Centre and to keep them in good order. As a consultant to the programming team I help shape the organ recitals and try to pre-empt questions which might arise in general programming work regarding the use of these instruments. There’s the big one in the Royal Festival Hall, of course – but did you know there’s one in the Queen Elizabeth Hall as well? It lives under the stage in a kind of garage affair. It comes up on a lift, moves on a railway track and is the only pipe organ I know with a handbrake!


I aspire to ensure that the organ is in tip-top condition to allow the soloist to perform to the best of their ability. Of course, we can’t tune all the pipes in one session, so looking after the organ is a bit like painting the Forth Bridge – we have to start at one end and gradually work through it to make sure it is all in tune. Some parts need more regular attention than others, so I work with our expert tuners from Harrison & Harrison Ltd to develop a plan on what to tackle through the year.


You are also Professor of Organology at the Royal Academy of Music. What is “organology”?

Organology embraces the study of the history of musical instruments and their cultures, as well as the science of those instruments and their classifications.


At the Royal Academy of Music, the term is used specifically to refer to a course in the organ department. The course focuses on the national schools of organ construction and repertoire, and how consideration of them (especially the way in which the instruments were built) affects the approach to performance. The course might, for example, present an opportunity to consider (say) Iberian organs from 1500, their musical and stylistic influences, composers at work, the general historical culture, the relationship with English music and other areas of Europe, and (of course) performance practice.


Furthermore, you are very much in demand as an independent organ consultant. Can you tell us about some of the projects that you have been involved with, in the past and currently? What background or skills would somebody (male or female) need to work as an organ consultant?

My work as a professional organ adviser has included the restorations of the organs at the Royal Festival Hall, St Mary’s, Redcliffe, Christ’s Chapel, Dulwich, St Michael’s, Cornhill, Christ Church, Spitalfields, Canterbury Cathedral, and St Mary’s Portsea, with on-going projects at Manchester Town Hall, Leeds Town Hall, and (amongst other venues) Brasenose College, Oxford. New organs have included the organ at St Barnabas Dulwich, now widely used for RCO organ exams, as well as an instrument to demonstrate the five flavours of Johnny Walker Blue Label whisky, and an organ for HM Queen Elizabeth II. It’s a varied life!


One must work with an instrument’s character to get the best from it. This is especially true of older organs, where English builders such as Willis, Hill, Lewis, Gray & Davison, J.W. Walker, etc., all knew what they wanted to say in their tonal design. These days we want organs to sound roughly the same: loud, brash, snappy, and equally resourceful in all types of repertoire. Sometimes organists ask to have their instruments rebuilt to conform with their ideas, and in the process manage to ruin a beautiful tonal scheme, designed and voiced by organ-builders who knew their own mind. Many organists don’t realise that, because they are custodians of an organ for a relatively brief period in its history, they are not entitled to set about making radical alterations to it. In the Anglican Church, planning permission (the Faculty Jurisdiction system and the Cathedrals’ Measure) is needed in order to undertake changes to an instrument.


I am Chairman of the Association of Independent Organ Advisers (AIOA), Organs Adviser to the Diocese of Southwark, and formerly to the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England (CFCE). We have no professional female organ advisers at present. If anyone is interested please feel free to be in touch.


In addition to all of the above, you are Organist at Bromley Parish Church, you give recitals and you have also authored several books and articles. Of all these many and varied activities, which gives you the most satisfaction?

A friend of mine reminded me of the phrase: ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person’. I sometimes wonder how I came to be so busy – but I do manage to fit it all in, and I love what I do. I don’t run a choir any more (I just play the organ at Bromley and am assistant to Frank Roddy), and this has freed up a substantial amount of time. A significant project has been the business of writing a book. A few years ago, the Royal Academy of Music appointed me as an Honorary Research Fellow in order to help me finish writing a long-awaited study of the English organ and its repertoire: The Tonal Architecture and Music of the English Organ. This, I hope, will be published before long; it draws together many strands of my work and study. We have books about organ-building and some about repertoire and performance practice – but nothing which investigates the chicken-and-egg question: ‘which came first, the organs or the repertoire?’. The relationship between organ-building and performance practice does not seem to have been explored in any depth. These subjects are often dealt with quite separately as different disciplines – and yet these are the very topics which shaped the ways in which organs were and are used, both historically and (for example) during the Organ Revival. Some of these subjects stray into European organ performance practice but have their roots in what was and is taught in England.


How do you find time to practise and learn new repertoire?

Put quite simply: I’d like more time to learn new pieces. It’s hard enough keeping up with older repertoire! It’s a constant battle. In my sights is Ghislaine Reece-Trapp’s In paradisum, which I think is quite beautiful. I will get down to it before Remembrance-tide!


Statistics on the SWO website highlight the significant gender imbalance among organists. Do you have any thoughts as to why this is the case and what might be done to address this?

I think the imbalance is understandable (even if it is not acceptable by modern standards); it has been handed down to us by history: women have not often been appointed to senior roles in the organ world. But this is rapidly changing; even in the last ten years there are more women in cathedral and university posts. I’m very proud to have helped launch SWO from the stage of the Royal Festival Hall. Onwards and upwards!


 

Dr William McVicker is Organ Curator at London’s Royal Festival Hall and teaches Organology at the Royal Academy of Music. He is an active recitalist and church musician and served as Director of Music at St Barnabas, Dulwich for thirty-one years. William is Chairman of the Association of Independent Organ Advisers (AIOA), Organs Adviser to the Diocese of Southwark, a Music Adviser to the Hamish Ogston Foundation, a Trustee of the ON Organ Fund, and former organ adviser to the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England (CFCE). An Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Musical Instrument Technology, William was recently elected both an Honorary Research Fellow and an Honorary Associate of the Royal

Academy of Music.

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